In a world increasingly touch-screen, virtual, and cloud-based, Freemasonry is a rare chance to go back in time. Dark candlelit rooms, anciently spoken ceremonies, honored traditions...And you get to have a freaking sword. There's no hiding it, everyone gets a bit excited when they first see that there are swords sitting around the lodge for use during meetings and degree work. We all grabbed one and swung it around when no one was looking, don't deny it. Everyone loves taking pictures with their Masonic blades in regalia, they're presented as awards and milestones, and they're typically the first accessory many York Rite Masons buy before any other regalia. Swords are just that cool.
Outside of Masonry, I'm a historical martial artist with a track record in European swordsmanship and its history. Working my way through sport fencing and Filipino martial arts into full-immersion, full-contact longsword fighting has been the most surreal and enjoyable journeys of my life outside the Craft. I get asked pretty regularly by Brothers to answer questions about swords, and rather often I get asked how they tie into Masonic history. It's not the easiest story to tell or hear, but the sad truth of Masonic swords needs to be told.
Within the era of Solomon's temple and its various episodes of existence, the modern person might be quite confused if not disappointed in the role of swords. While Masonic degrees attempt with notable success to replicate the apparel and of course the stonework tools of this era, these sagas predate the invention of iron by a few centuries. Bronze age weapons were limited by metal scarcity, with the average soldier using a wooden shield and spear with a bronze spearhead. Swords were so expensive and difficult to forge that they were more commonly a status symbol. They were barely longer than a forearm, with wider leaf-shaped blades. Specifically in the Middle East, they were sometimes curved like a sickle in order to increase the cutting surface and excelled at horseback use. But by today's standards, museum visitors would appraise these Solomon-era swords as 'a big copper knife.'
Flash forward a quick two millennia to another Masonic-focused era, with chain-mail draped knights fighting the Crusades while the Knights Templar rise as a powerful, enigmatic brotherhood. Iron was now common enough, that warriors while still fought primarily with spear and archers as their ideal battle plan, swords were standard issue as backup weapons. Almost every culture on Earth preferred to fight with spears and projectiles in every instance, with the sword riding along as a back-up weapon much like a modern soldier carries a pistol along with his service rifle. These twisted-iron swords with familiar cross-guard hilts quickly became symbolic of knighthood itself. While these are now 'swords' at first glance, they are quite smaller than the flea market ones your brother-in-law has hanging on his bedroom wall. The ones with the Templar crosses on the pommel. You know the ones.
Even as swords and armor gave way to gunpowder, the longing of nobles and commoners alike to cosplay as a warrior and carry a sword on their belt led to the development of lighter, more portable weapons which were geared for personal defense as well as formal dueling. Modern martial artists call this type of weapon a 'sidesword,' and it was often trained and used in tandem with a buckler (small shield, as in 'swashbuckler'), dagger, cloak, or even a lantern if you were fighting at night. Duelists began noticing that many fights were ended because the hand holding the sword was extremely vulnerable, and began adding steel guards to protect their hand. Gradually, these guards became more elaborate and stylized as fashion accessories. As getting the first blood became more important than portability, these swords became full-sized rapiers which were designed for pure efficiency in formal duels.
Things slowly settled down with bloodlust weeding itself out of everyday society, and rapiers gave way to much shorter, nimble 'small swords'. For those who simply enjoyed the art of dueling without the hassle of life or death, dull versions were used to train safely, and this became modern sport of fencing as you'd see in the Olympics to this day. Their use in real fights was increasingly rare, with only a few publicity stunt cases. To actually know how to use a sword was a social taboo, and only diehard fans kept the arts alive as the world move on. The sword had gone from the sidearm of the medieval knight, to a gilded fashion accessory for a lower-upper class noble wanting to impress his friends at a courtly ball. By the 1700s, the only swordsmen left were the fun-seeking sport fencers, and a few aging nobles who couldn't let go of rapier duels as an underground tradition.
And then...after all that...Came Freemasonry. Going by the academic assumptions that Freemasonry in its current form originated in the late 1600s leading up to the first Grand Lodge forming in 1717, the entire history of Western swordsmanship had already become irrelevant history by the time the first lodges formed. But, per our ancient declarations...Our meetings are guarded by a Brother with a sword. This is one of the few traditions universal to all forms of Masonry, and the sword is almost always specified. This is widely reported as an indicator of how dangerous this task was, as the Tyler faced impostors and attackers with sword in hand...Even though flintlock pistols were now as common as Apple Watches and waving an antique weapon no one knew how to hold correctly may not be the best use of time and resources.
In reality, Masonry has forgotten the use of the sword...Symbolically. It is just a symbol, it has always been a symbol, and at no point in our history has it ever referred to a functional, flesh-cutting sword to be wielded by the Brother in a polo shirt texting his wife in the chair outside your lodge room. The earliest traces of Tyler's swords in England all feature decorative, flame-shaped blades that make them stand out as display pieces. No, these are not the famous flame-bladed German swords you saw in a meme on Facebook. These are decorative, pot-metal props designed to look like a flaming sword which appears in many faiths and sagas as a symbol of holy protection and faithful duty. In fact, early accounts report that Tylers were sometimes adorned in full costume which built upon the theme of the sword with bold red fabric and sun-styled embroidering.
As Masonry grew and traveled, it simply appears that this old tradition gave way to pragmatic resources. While flame-shaped swords are still found in England, many American lodges possess historic cavalry sabers tied to Brothers who served in various colonial wars. When you're a European colonist living out of a trunk you sailed an ocean with, improvisations had to happen and Masonic regalia became more regionally sourced. Most of these sabers that I've handled and traced are specifically built for horseback use, and are too long and heavy for functional fencing without notable difficulty. Your lodge may have an amazing history and a priceless treasure of a sword, but about those Past Master stories where it was used to fight off an angry mob...
Now, this is where you start to hate me. It's time to talk about your grandfather's Knights Templar sword. The one that your aunt gave you when you first joined your lodge.
Whether it's an antique, a newly purchased one from a supplier, or one of the rusted ones in the umbrella bucket in your lodge store room, they all share a unique design that Masons across the world recognize instantly as their own. They feature a carved knight's head pommel, the engraving and file-work of the handle with an ebony grip, iconic cross-guards, and the hand-etching of the blade with gorgeous designs and symbols from the Templar degree. One of my most prized possessions is one of these swords, dated to 1910 and belonging to a notable business owner in my lodge's community. These beautiful swords are still valuable as a piece of our culture and imagery...But historically and factually, these swords may have been designed and invented by some one who specialized in dining table cutlery.
The American Civil War in the 1860s is known for many technology and tactical innovations in warfare, but economically its greatest impact was the first use of mass-produced military uniforms. Unfortunately for the textile industry, they miscalculated how long the war would last and were left an insanely large overstock of military uniform components. In the greatest act of fast-talking salesmanship since a con man sold a small town band instruments and uniforms in 'The Music Man', these manufacturers approached the various fraternal societies of America and offered them a discount on these fine uniforms to start their own official drill teams for parades and regional events. As military drill was still enjoyed as a hobby for recent veterans of the era, many fraternal orders including Masonic appendent bodies, Oddfellows, and Knights of Pythias all bought in. Someone must have also gotten a shipload of ostrich feathers by mistake at some point, because they also marketed the feather chapeau as the ideal headgear for marching in a parade in the middle of summer in a black wool uniform.
And while you're buying our jacket, shirt, boots, pants, belt, and ostrich hat bundle...Why not throw in a sword? To cater to the medieval themes of these various fraternities, these 'fraternal swords' as they're called in the antiques business were made in bulk to sell as uniform accessories and as an excuse for these drill teams to implement modified cavalry saber drills into their routines. Fraternal swords were never designed to be sharpened, and were even smaller than even the decorative smallsword nobles carried. Instead of a protective hand basket, they feature a cross-hilt as you would find on a full-sized knightly longsword. Realistically, whoever designed these had never seen or held a European sword in their life and worked off paintings and drawings for inspiration. Eventually, you start seeing handmade, much better crafted versions for individuals who took particular pride in their organization and began using them to signify rank or achievement. Is it a sword? No. Is it a beautiful heirloom you should be proud of? Absolutely.
So, here we are in late 2019 in the digital age with swords, armor, and Blu-ray discs long abandoned to archaeologists. But Masonry maintains a link to ancient history that no other organization offers, including the mythos of a man with a sword guarding the door so the brotherhood can be left undisturbed and protected. We proudly wear them in various degrees, drill with them for ritual, they're featured in our symbolic lectures and imagery, and it gives us a break from modern life to feel like an ancient warrior for just a quick second. We need to keep including swords and their history within our practices, even if the actual history is more well-meaning than well-researched.
What sword is truly the best for you, your lodge, or your organization as a whole? That's up to you or your members. Take pride and consideration in the decision, it's yours to make and should be enjoyed. If you're seeking a period-accurate Solomon-era piece, consider finding a gladius prop for a general lookalike, or having a replica crafted or 3D-printed. Are you a proud member of a Knightly order? Consider an 'arming sword' replica and a scabbard if want to try upgrading your next Commandery meeting. Tastefully plain-steel longsword replicas are impressive for officer processionals, installations, and special occasions. Particularly historical lodges with interests in early United States history may find a cavalry saber replica from a reenactment supplier to be a fine addition to their foyer.
Brother Guide Sobecki of Geneva Lodge No.139 is the Junior Warden of Gourgas Chapter of Rose Croix, Valley of Chicago Scottish Rite as well as Deputy Governor of Illinois York Rite College No. 15. He works as a public relations specialist and ghostwriter for the national association of neurosurgeons. He holds the rank of Scholar at Arms in the art of medieval longsword fighting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .